Poetry from Steve Bloom

“Ears and Hearts” Revisited
or: The Under-Appreciation of Greatness
by Steve Bloom
April, 2015—My poem, “Ears and Hearts,” (written in 2008, see below) raises the question: Why is great art so often under-appreciated in its own time? I am not the first  to ask this question, of course. But up to now I have not heard anyone offer a reasonably satisfactory explanation. Obviously this is not a universal phenomenon. Shakespeare’s plays were well-loved in Elizabethan England. Mozart was an acknowledged genius while he was alive—even if the people of Vienna had some difficulty judging the quality of his music compared to that of Antonio Salieri. Still, we are dealing with a common enough phenomenon.
At the end of the poem I promise to share any insights I may gather about this question. The present essay is an attempt to fulfill that pledge. It’s the result of many years of contemplation but, more importantly, two “Eureka” moments that occurred in the last few months. I am not going to suggest that I have resolved our dilemma for all time. But perhaps the aspects that I touch on below will help us by developing some useful insight.
Eureka moment number 1
I was listening to a radio interview (sorry, memory does not permit me to cite the original source) about popular culture, when the person being interviewed noted that the parents of each generation cannot understand the popular music of their own children. It’s true, I  thought to myself: My parents could not understand rock. Their parents could not understand swing. I still struggle to understand hip-hop—though I’m making an effort, with perhaps some glimmer emerging after many years.
So let me pose the question: What would have happened had someone invented hip-hop in the 1950s and presented it to young people who were just developing a culture of rock and roll?  What if a different someone had tried to get up on stage and perform rock music during the Big Band era? Answer—a phenomenon similar to what Mahler experienced, as recounted in the poem: A lot of head-scratching from the audience. And thus we can, perhaps, begin to make a connection. Maybe this general phenomenon of popular culture relates to other kinds of culture as well?
One feature that often contributes to great art is a bold creativity. (This is particularly valued in our present era. It was not always the prevailing aesthetic.) And great art that displays this innovative quality is, it seems to me, most likely to be underappreciated by contemporary observers—because it will anticipate trends and therefore set them. If such work emerges a generation before the trend is ready to be accepted, then the art itself will not be accepted for a generation. Perhaps this is one part of the explanation for our difficulty—even if the insight gained is merely descriptive and does not consider causes.
Let us, then, begin to consider causes by moving on to of “Eureka moment number 2.”
Eureka moment number 2
Recently I attended a political event where two poets, a bit more famous than I, had been invited to perform their work.  As each of them stood at the mike I asked myself “why?” The poems were long and, for the most part, simply repeated commonplace truths that everyone becomes aware of after spending five or ten minutes in the struggle for social justice. There was nothing particularly innovative or creative here in terms of either content or style. One of the poems, in fact, relied heavily on a rather clichéd technical device. Yet each of the poets, when she was finished, was greeted with a standing ovation and wild applause.
I have to assume that the audience reaction was genuine, strange as it seemed to me at the time. This was not an audience that was getting up and offering a standing ovation to everyone. Most speakers were, in fact, greeted in a rather ho-hum fashion. Since it was a dinner event the chairperson even had to struggle to keep people from engaging in personal conversations while speakers were making their remarks. So it was obvious that the audience had been genuinely stirred by the work of these two poets which, quite frankly, left me not only unmoved but rather wishing I hadn’t had to sit through their recitations. I could, of course, conclude that the problem was simply me and my own perceptions. Maybe. And you are entitled to draw that conclusion if you like. But I don’t actually believe it. So I began searching for an explanation.
To some extent we can probably find that explanation, or part of it, in the general culture of mediocrity which infects our society. Movies and TV shows that insult the intelligence of anyone who has even a smattering of intelligence become smash hits. Novels where the plot depends on one or more characters acting out of character, or on some genre device that has been done to death (like the poetic device that one of our two performers relied on that evening), become runaway best sellers. So few people seem to care about excellence or originality any more, or about real substance. Even good writers (or those who were once good writers) get seduced by the easy formula that brings quick popular acclaim, and financial rewards. My guess is that this is part of what was happening during the event described above.
But I think something else was probably happening too: People actually enjoy what is familiar, even commonplace. They are comfortable with it. They don’t necessarily want to be challenged in ways that will force them to think new thoughts or consider new insights. I hope it’s not too cynical to believe that perhaps this pattern extends even beyond our present culture of mediocrity, back in time to previous generations.
If this observation is true then it might offer us an explanation for why it sometimes takes a generational shift before innovative artistic movements are accepted. Surely, if most people are attracted to what is comfortable and familiar in their cultural life, the older we get the stronger that tendency is likely to become. A younger generation is going to accept a new movement far more easily than an older generation—perhaps simply because the “new” idea has been around for a while, is not quite so “new” any longer.
Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable for any culture to reserve a place for what is familiar and comfortable. No problem with that in itself. Many long and valued cultural traditions—especially folk traditions—are based on this kind of creativity. And the extremely skillful/polished reproduction of that which is traditionally valued can also, quite correctly, be considered “great”—something we often acknowledge in relation to performing artists.
But human culture, taken as a whole, simultaneously values innovation (see “Eureka moment number 1” above). Artistic thought cannot advance even by the most skillful repetition of that which has become familiar and expected any more than philosophy, or science, or political thought can. The innovators in each of these fields, and in so many others, are rightly valued-most-highly once their contributions are understood for what they are. But it’s not always obvious at the outset which innovative thought really does represent a road to new discoveries about the world—discoveries that can, then, become something familiar and commonplace for the next generation. Sometimes a new idea is not really worth much. The process of sorting out which is which takes time, and as we struggle with it mistakes will be made in both directions: giving great acclaim on occasion to that which is not worth much while ignoring truly substantial contributions. It’s not uncommon for this process to remain unresolved until after the death of the innovator(s).
I repeat, this is true in science, philosophy, and other fields as well as in the arts. Viewed from this perspective we realize that the pattern we are trying to understand affects all fields of human endeavor in which creative energies might be expended, not just the arts.  
Another insight?
Finally, let me add a third aspect, which is not exactly a “eureka” moment, because it’s a thought that has been growing in my consciousness for some time based on my own personal experience. I cannot offer testimony that this is a universal experience, but I’m inclined to believe that the same dynamics must affect other people as well.
I have always tried to maintain a mind that’s open to new ideas. I believe I succeed, at least as much as and probably more than most people do. But I notice a very distinct tendency in my own patterns of thought nonetheless: When I am initially confronted with an idea or proposal that clashes vigorously with things I already believe, my first (pretty-much instinctive) reaction is to just say “no,” to reject it as absurd. The second time someone else raises the same thought with me, however, I am much more inclined to consider it in a serious way. Apparently my subconscious has been working on the problem between these two moments, contemplating the creative pathways that might be opened up by accepting what is new, even if only in a partial way. And so I begin to become more able to rethink what I had once believed to be the only way one could reasonably look at a particular problem.
Art that is great because it is bold and innovative—clashing with preconceptions about art and about life that we have been trained in, sometimes for the entire history of the human species—is obviously going to confront this difficulty when it is offered to those who share the same mental tendency with me. The individual who first initiates a bold approach to whatever art we might be considering is going to have a tough time gaining people’s acceptance. Such an artist may then, quite reasonably, pose the question, as Gustav Mahler posed it to Alma more than a century ago: “Where do people keep their ears, and their hearts, if they can’t hear (see, feel, understand) that?”
*   *   *   *   *
Ears and Hearts

He tried the music out first in Budapest,
1889, but there was considerable bewilderment—
including, according to one reporter,
"a small, but for all that  audible, element
            of opposition."
By 1900 the experience had been repeated,
complete with audience indifference,
in Hamburg, Weimar (twice), and Berlin.
"Damn it all, where
do people keep their ears 
and their hearts
if they can't hear that" 
Gustav wrote to Alma.
And it took fifteen years 
from start to finish,
before he would finally publish 
his "Symphony Number One,"
which allows me to sit here this evening,
thrilled by the Chicago Symphony  Orchestra,
mind wandering to times
I recited a poem, then returned
to my seat wondering "Where
do people keep their ears,
            and their hearts?"
put that particular verse away, resolved
never to read it in public again.
And before Mahler's final chords
have faded I have decided
to take one or two of these pieces
out for my next featured reading,
            and the next
and then for the one after that too,
until someday, perhaps,
I will be able to offer you
a satisfactory answer
            to this question.
May 2008
Comments from readers:
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* Pam McAllister, New York:

I love the Mahler quote you use to tie the whole thing together. I’m reminded of
the initial reception received by Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." The 1913 Paris audience was divided into the "fashionable" set who liked tradition and the "Bohemians" who usually loved anything new. But, both united in their hared of the ballet's choreography and music. Derisive laughter turned to hissing and booing, which erupted into a full blown riot, by some reports. Press reviews were hostile. Then WWI broke out....
And both Mozart and Bach were accused of writing "too many notes." I can't find the reference, but remember hearing that, after Bach was criticized for writing church music that was too complex, with too many notes, he responded by playing with only one finger for a couple weeks. Ha!
I also think there are multiple reasons for applause, not just one. Sometimes, it's to honor the person who has stuck with their art for a long time. We show our appreciation and our encouragement. Other times, we like to have our counter-cultural perspectives affirmed, not challenged.
My favorite section of your essay was "Another insight?" because I could relate to your experience of initially rejecting new ideas, but, on second hearing, being more open. I think that's the nature of true change. It's like tending a garden. The new ideas need to be planted, watered, tended. Only then will they bloom. It doesn't sound very radical, but it is.
Visit Pam's blog at: 
* Sheena King, State Correctional Institute at Muncy, PA
Your essay (by the way I love the title) moved me and Eureaka moment number 1 resonated with me.That insight is very similar to my own appreciation of this subject. Like many others I've often wondered why artistic geniuses died pennless and without recognition until a future generation stumbles upon their work. I believe many of the greats were forward thinkers and creators so their works were before their time, could not be received, or appreciated and accepted, by their own generation. So, so tragic.

* Mary Ellen Sanger, Colorado:
I enjoyed your essay. It makes me think, too, of clashes of culture like… being able to appreciate Chinese opera, for example. Or opera at all, for some people! It’s something my brother noted, when visiting me in Mexico. “Americans’ taste buds are asleep! All we know is ketchup and mustard!” (When confronted with a blackened chile condiment of some kind.)
There are those who like the familiar… and those of us who prefer the jolt of the different, I guess.
* Zool Zulkowitz, New York:
Just a first response to the subject of a much longer conversation.
Surely you've noticed, while visiting the Met, or MoMA, or the Louvre, that many people seem to spend more time with the name on the label, rather than with the art itself.  Maybe you remember the name of the Joni Mitchell song about the street musician she passes while on the way to the concert hall in her limo.  He plays so sweetly, but no one stops to listen, as they've never seen him on TV.
So, yes, certainly there is great art that is under-appreciated or unappreciated in its time.  Or, maybe never at all.  Imagine the beauty of things never seen.
I think that all art and culture is a continuation of all that precedes it; the concept is rarely new, but the mode or technology is.  I happen to think that some of the best art today can be seen on your television.  But these things are always a matter of taste, and the moment you find yourself in.
As for the poets who receive an over-appreciated ovation, it is not unusual for an audience to applaud an over-rated performer and ignore the real thing.
* Paula Panzarella, Connecticut:
Too often, artists are too advanced for the time, and society has to play a catch-up game. Or maybe the unknown artists end up discovered forty years later in dusty archives and everyone oohs and ahhs them when they're dead.
Being creative is kind of like if you're a psychic, and everyone you talk with says no, you don't know what you're talking about, that can't be right, and no matter what you do, you can't convince them. And when time proves you're right, they don't even remember that you predicted it, so you're robbed of the "I told you so" moment.
If people can't relate to an innovative form, the nuances probably won't be examined. "Too much work" to understand something one doesn't understand or like.
Maybe we're all getting overworked.